A Tribute to Toots Hibbert

❉ Toots Hibbert has left a deep, profound and inspirational legacy, a testament to his time on this earth.

‘It is with the heaviest of hearts to announce that Frederick Nathaniel ‘Toots’ Hibbert passed away peacefully tonight. Surrounded by his family at the university hospital of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica.
The family and his management team would like to thank the medical teams and professionals for their care and diligence. And ask that you respect their privacy during their time of grief.
Mr. Hibbert is survived by his wife of 39 years, Miss D, and seven of his eight children.’

Posted on the Toots and the Maytals Twitter account, 7.37am, September 12th, 2020

Some human beings are touched with true greatness. A characteristic which makes them tougher, more humane, talented and inspirational than the rest. Toots Hibbert, the leader of the Maytals and bona fide international superstar, lion and undisputed king of reggae music, had these attributes.

As the Jamaican musical tempo began to speed up into a strut in 1968, following twenty-four months or so of rocksteady’s slower grooves, Toots released the lively Do The Reggay as a 45. This cut is universally accepted as coining the first use of the term ‘reggay’ (‘reggae’). Pioneering in itself.

However, by then Toots had already been recording and performing with the band he formed with Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon and Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Mathias McCarthy for several years. He had experienced the ska years of the early sixties – check out the barnstorming Never Can Change from 1965.

He had been incarcerated for alleged marijuana possession shortly after his track, Bam Bam, won the inaugural Jamaican Festival Song Competition in 1966. Therefore during a portion of those rocksteady years Toots was out of circulation, and on the sidelines.

No matter for such a man. A man of strength. After those charges were wiped, the lion roared. His time inside was put to good use. Any inward bitterness was channelled to a good, positive purpose.

He wrote the classic 5446 Was My Number. A reference, of course, to his inmate number. Talk about turning a bad situation into a positive. The world, including myself, a lad living in the East Midland region of England, was eternally grateful. Jamaican music was about to become global, and the connection between the island and the UK particularly strong.

The rest, which will be touched on later in this article, is history. But Toots Hibbert is immortal. The man has left such a deep, profound and inspirational legacy, a testament to his time on this earth. And as he lived a comparatively lengthy life his catalogue of work and achievements is vast. The world owes him a huge debt of gratitude. And a massive bow of respect.

‘A sad day for Jamaican music.
Toots was a giant
I loved working with him.
I loved hanging with him.
I’m going to miss him.
My condolences to the Hibbert family.’

These words, handwritten, were from Keith Richards. Rock n’ rollers do not come more legendary than this man. His band mate, one Mick Jagger, added –

‘When I first heard Pressure Drop that was a big moment – he had such a powerful voice and on stage he always gave the audience his total energy. A sad loss to the music world.’

Endless tributes followed.

‘Sad to hear of the passing of Toots Hibbert. He was an early pioneer of Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae.’ – Yusuf/Cat Stevens

‘He was a father figure to me his spirit is with us and his music fills us with his energy.’- Ziggy Marley

The level of respect and love given by such figures in music echo the feelings of many millions across the globe. He was a true giant, a true king of reggae, a leader and a motivational force to millions like me, living thousands of miles from his homeland.

 

Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert was born in December 1942 in May Penn, Jamaica. He was the youngest of seven children, and he grew up singing gospel songs in the local church choir. His parents were both preachers. Frederick’s schooldays were also musical. “We had to sing before class …. And teacher said, ‘Yeah you have the best voice,’ and gave me good encouragement.” Toots recalled, speaking to BBC 6 Music in 2018.

Unfortunately his mother, a midwife, died when he was just eight and by the time the young Frederick was eleven his father had also passed away.

As a teenager and now an orphan, Frederick moved to the bustling streets of Kingston to live with his brother John, who nicknamed him ‘Little Toots’. He began working in a barber shop. It was at this point Frederick became friends with Jerry Mathias McCarthy and Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon, and The Maytals were born. At this point they were a vocal group.

The radar of ubiquitous Studio One proprietor Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd soon picked up on The Maytals. Dodd signed them in 1962, and several singles were issued on Studio One including Six And Seven Books and Broadway Jungle. However The Maytals moved away from Dodd in 1964 following a financial dispute. Prince Buster took over and the singles continued, including the fore-mentioned Never Can Change. They also worked with Ronnie Nasralla, and released material on his BMN label. This union worked especially well, and Bam Bam was one of the cuts made by the partnership. It appeared first on the fantastic The Sensational Maytals long player.

 

The Maytals hit a roadblock in 1967 with Toots’ spell in jail. However, the seminal 5445 Was My Number was the result and became a huge hit. Significantly, it was one of the first reggae (or blue beat, as the music was called at the time) numbers to achieve success overseas, particularly in Europe. The music was a fusion of ska and rocksteady, and the year was 1968.

“In Jamaica we had a slang – if we’re not looking so good if we’re looking raggedy, we’d call it ‘streggae.’ That’s where I took it from.” – Toots, speaking with BBC 6 Music in 2018

The term ‘streggae’ is widely used in Jamaica. Its derivative ‘reggay’ appeared in the title of Toots’ 1968 number Do The Reggay:

“I recorded this song ‘Do The Reggay’ and people told me that the song let them know that our music is called Reggae. So I’m the one who coined the word!”

One or two others jumped in and released material with ‘reggay’ in the title but Toots’ claim is universally accepted. No-one can genuinely argue. The classic Sweet And Dandy was also released in 1968, with an album of the same name issued on Beverley’s Records in 1969. It effectively mopped up many of the band’s releases until that point.

Reggae music was upon us. Give thanks and praises. And Toots and The Maytals gave it its name, worked through its formulative years and were in the thick of it as it spread its wings.

1970 saw the band score a UK Top 40 hit with the legendary Monkey Man, and Toots appeared in the classic film The Harder They Come which included his song Pressure Drop. Two of the most endearing reggae classics, recorded subsequently a decade later by UK powerhouses The Specials and The Clash. Obviously this cemented the band’s reputation in the United Kingdom, at a time when the music of the nation’s youth had a real bond with the streets of Kingston.

Throughout the 1970s The Maytals recorded a string of reggae classics. Peeping Tom (1970). Gospel and funk influenced Funky Kingston, which was a huge global smash in 1973. It was the title track of The Maytals’ thumping 1973 long player, released on Dragon Records, a subsidiary of Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Time Tough appeared on the same album and was issued as a 45 in 1974. Its words are as relevant today as it was back then, incidentally. Toots was a magnificent lyricist.

In 1980 Blackwell and The Maytals made history by recording and releasing a show at London’s Hammersmith Palais with twenty-four hours. In 1981 Mathias and Gordon retired from music, leaving Toots standing alone as a solo performer in the 1980s. He formed a new version of The Maytals, with new backing singers and musicians who toured throughout the nineties before releasing the high-profile True Love album in 2004. Guests on the release included Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and newcomers No Doubt and The Roots. It won Toots a much-deserved Grammy in 2005, and heralded a highly successful run of acclaimed long player releases including 2007’s Light Your Light.

Most of Toots’ activity post-2010 has been in the live arena. Whether it be a general, multi-genred festival performance, or a sweaty small 2000 capacity club venue, the shows were always classy, energetic and full of favourites. The Maytals were as good a backing band as anyone could ever wish for. Tight as a nut, expressive and soulful. They would warm the crowd up for a few minutes, laying a groove which would get the audience bouncing. Then Toots himself would arrive on-stage with a showbiz style entrance, and by god, the party would get started.

Toots’ voice always appeared strong, never withering as the years went by. Every crowd was in his palm, his stage craft truly expert. The classics were always played, and worshiped. Funky Kingston. 5445 Was My Number. Pressure Drop. Monkey Man. Bam Bam. All among the best live music available on the planet.

Toots and The Maytals’ presence on a bill appeared to energize other acts. The springtime shows with The Specials in 2017 were awesome. The sun was out, a deejay spinning tunes between acts. Somehow the intimacy of a club was transferred to a big outdoor setting. The Specials had their work cut out following the man onstage. Lynval Golding reminded us who started it all, and who wrote Monkey Man. Then his own group performed the track. It was the best received number of The Specials’ set.

In August 2020 Toots and The Maytals released their first record in a decade. Got To Be Tough followed on from 2010’s Flip And Twist and was instantly critically acclaimed. The opening 45, Got To Be Tough, received plenty of airplay and is a steady, slightly edgy slab of quality reggae. Toots voice as husky and powerful as it ever has been, and the lyric cautionary yet positive.

The album is a forty minute reminder, as if it were needed, of the brilliance of Toots and The Maytals. Touches of gospel (Freedom Train) sit with the dramatic opener, Drop Off Head. The funk of Just Brutal sits with an amazing reworking of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. With a guest appearance from the man’s son, Ziggy Marley. Two of Reggae’s Kings, United. And unity really is something reggae music provides to our earth. No-one did more to promote this than Toots Hibbert.

As the years go by more and more of our favourite musicians sadly pass away. Some young, some old, but all are missed infinitely. However, once in an absolute while a real legend unfortunately leaves us.

Frederick Nathaniel ‘Toots’ Hibbert was such an individual. He was instrumental in the evolution of modern Jamaican music, and was present through its genesis, its development and its journey over borders, bringing nations and populations together in the process.

Thanks Toots. RIP. Your legacy will live eternally.


❉ Toots and the Maytals’ ‘Got to Be Tough’ was released 28 August, 2020 via Trojan Jamaica/BMG Records. Available now for download and streaming across all platforms.

❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.

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